The Shutdown's a Letdown

The highly anticipated launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, expected to happen before the end of January, has been delayed by the government shutdown.

With no approved budget from Congress, the U.S. federal government has effectively been put on hold, or what's more commonly known as "shutdown", on the evening of January 19. The term has a rather literal meaning, as federal institutions and offices are forced to halt operations, putting services on hold and leaving government employees temporarily without a job.

A shutdown isn't just costly, it also projects a particular kind of inefficiency in the government. Worse still, this month's shutdown — one of over a dozen that the U.S. has seen in the past 40 years — can also affect private companies, such as SpaceX.

According to The Verge, the shutdown has delayed tests for the Falcon Heavy's launch. “This shutdown impacts SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy demonstration, which is critical for future [national security space] missions,” John Taylor, a spokesperson for SpaceX, told The Verge.

U.S. Air Force personnel are needed for test fires to be conducted presumably at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, where the Heavy is expected to be launched. With both NASA's and the Air Force's employees put on furlough, no assistance can be expected from either federal institution.

Grounding Rockets

The Falcon Heavy's maiden launch has been highly anticipated, and it's already seen its fair share of delays, being postponed from a proposed 2017 launch. For SpaceX, the Heavy is a rocket crucial for the company's future. Strapped with three Falcon 9 cores, each with nine Merlin engines, the Falcon Heavy would be SpaceX's most powerful and capable rocket yet.

A successful launch would show that SpaceX could handle bringing larger payloads into space, which in turn could potentially widen the scope for future collaborations with new partners. In practice, compared to the Falcon 9's launch, this new mission would accomplish much more, and a greater variety of tasks for SpaceX would definitely translate into more business.

A working Merlin engine. Image credit: SpaceX

This could provide SpaceX with the sustainable cash flow the company needs to keep its plans for Mars alive. At the same time, a successful Falcon Heavy launch could also provide SpaceX's engineers with much needed data to inform the development of their BFR rocket for Mars.
All of these are now indefinitely delayed because of the current federal government shutdown. To be clear, not every government service is halted during a shutdown. Mail services still work, as well as checks and reimbursements for social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Certainly, lawmakers would still be getting paid during these days, when they actually need to work even harder to get things moving again.
Until they do, however, SpaceX's scheduled launches are going to be affected, and not just for the Falcon Heavy. “[The shutdown] also impacts critical missions for our customers, including important international allies, scheduled to launch shortly from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base, as well as upcoming missions this spring to resupply the International Space Station," Taylor told The Verge.

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